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Canada Is Having a Big Green Rebranding — And That Could Help the Oil Sands

The Alberta tar sands have made Canada’s energy industry a pariah among environmentalists, but at the Paris climate talks some politicians hope that a shift in Canadian policy will help get the country’s “heavy oil” to market.

by Jake Bleiberg
Dec 3 2015, 6:22pm

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the COP21. Photo by Michel Euler/AP

Every day in Muskeg River, Alberta, dump trucks the size of small buildings lumber back and forth from an open pit mine, carrying tens of thousands of pounds of slick black sand — the raw material for what US President Barack Obama called Canada's "extraordinarily dirty" oil.

The Alberta tar sands have made Canada's energy industry a pariah among environmentalists, but at the Paris climate talks some politicians hope that a shift in Canadian policy will win support for an initiative to get the country's "heavy oil" to market.

"We're very happy to see Prime Minister Trudeau step up on climate change because we think it's going to be able to help us on the international stage to sell a lot of our products, and of course it's the right thing to do," New Brunswick Premier Brian Gallant told CBC News on Monday, as he readied to join Trudeau and the other provincial premiers at the United Nations summit.

The Liberal premier is a strong supporter of the Energy East pipeline, which would carry oil thousands of miles from Alberta to the Atlantic coast, and expressed hope that Canada's "new brand" will enable responsible development of the country's natural resources and brighten the dim international view of Canadian pipelines, demonstrated by Obama's rejection of Keystone XL in November.

In the lead up to Paris, Trudeau has also been working hard to present a greener Canada, saying in a speech last week that unveiled a five-year, $2.65-billion contribution to help developing countries address rising temperatures, that "Canada is back and ready to play its part in combating climate change."' But while the political messaging has been thick, the government is thus far thin on details and lacks emissions goals.

Related: What Trudeau's Liberal Victory Means for Canada's Oil Sands

The Liberal government intends to work with the provinces to set a national emission-reduction target and develop a "pan-Canadian framework" of carbon pricing. Trudeau has said he will meet again with the premiers to discuss the issues within 90 days of the Paris conference, and made campaign promises to strengthen the environmental review of development projects and "modernize" the regulatory bodies that he claims were "politically torqued" by the previous Conservative government of Stephen Harper. But up until now he's offered little hint of how these initiatives might affect the oil industry and projects like Energy East.

For their part Canadian energy companies — many of which were calling on the government to tax carbon-dioxide even while Harper claimed that doing so would "screw everybody" — are largely supportive of carbon pricing schemes, including the one recently passed by Alberta's ruling New Democratic Party. "We believe that the climate challenge is a pressing one and it needs to be addressed, and we see carbon pricing as being a really key component of delivering action on climate," Shell Canada spokesperson Cameron Yost told VICE News. "For us as a business, it helps provide certainty moving forward."

For Shell, which owns a majority share in the trucks carrying bitumen-rich earth from Muskeg River and other mines, the path forward is not leaving oil in the ground. Rather, Yost said that the company is working to reduce and mitigate the carbon output linked to extracting oil in Alberta. Through a variety of initiatives, Shell aims to bring the CO2 emissions produced by making a barrel of oil in the tar sands down to the considerably lower average level of emissions that result from a barrel of American-made petrol. This, according to Yost, is integral to the company's plan to make Canadian oil both environmentally and economically competitive.

But companies like Shell will only be able to realize the full profit potential of Canadian oil if they can get it to foreign markets. "Projects like Energy East are important for the safe transportation of the product and help us, as Canadians, realize a better price for what we're producing," said Yost.

Related: Justin Trudeau Subjects Canada's Premiers to a Science Class Before Paris Climate Summit

Environmentalists, however, see the pipeline as an unnecessary risk and claim that Gallant's hope of painting the project green is out of step with what's being pushed for at the UN summit. "This isn't about marketing Canada differently and providing cover for us to continue developing our natural resources in the ways we have in the past," Catherine Abreu, a coordinator at the Ecology Action Center, said in an interview from Paris. "Pipelines like Energy East are infrastructure of the past."

Jennifer Winter, who studies energy and environmental policy at the University of Calgary, told VICE News that the efforts in Paris to set carbon prices is key to stopping rising temperatures and that Alberta's new carbon tax already does much to mitigate the environmental impact of developing the oil sands. However, she also noted that it's local opinion, as much as international, that will shape the future of Canada's energy industry. "This rebranding of Canada and Alberta as climate leaders could help in moving Energy East forward, but it also depends on TransCanada getting buy-in along the pipeline route and that's becoming more and more difficult because of concerns about climate change," said the professor. 

Follow Jake Bleiberg on Twitter: @JZBleiberg